Many park and recreation centers around the country are often used for local sporting events. Like many sports venues around the country, they are also getting much more sustainability-focused if, for no other reason than it helps reduce operating costs. We are talking about not only finding ways to reduce the amount of fuel, water, and energy consumed by these facilities, but also reducing waste, a significant cost and sustainability concern for park and recreation centers as well as large sports venues.

When it comes to reducing consumption and making a facility more sustainability-focused, these objectives can be much easier to accomplish in a brand-new stadium. Today, for example, most architects and designers have two goals in mind when planning a facility for their clients:

  1. That it meets the client’s needs, wants, expectations, and budget
  2. That it is constructed using products, materials, and methods that promote sustainability and use natural resources sparingly, resourcefully, and much more efficiently.

However, many park and recreation centers in the U.S. are not new, with many having been built in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Consumption and the efficient use of natural resources were not much of a consideration in those days. As a result, making these locations Greener and more sustainability-focused can be considerably more difficult, but it can be done. Moreover, many times, it is the people using these facilities that can make it happen.

Case in Point

Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences has been working with professional sports franchises, many of which are members of the Green Sports Alliance, to help these venues operate their locations in a Greener, more sustainable manner. One of their key goals has been to reduce or eliminate the amount of waste these venues generate after a sporting event. Reducing waste is often a major issue for park and recreation facilities, as well.

The team soon discovered that while manufacturers can make more of their products from recyclable materials, which can then be recycled once again, a more significant challenge involved “changing the culture and behavior of the fans,” according to Judd Michael, a professor with the University.

“Fans have to be persuaded to want to act in an environmentally conscientious way, and venues have to provide clear instructions and make it convenient to participate in recycling programs. [This is all] part of the bigger-picture challenge, which also involves… marketing and psychology.”

Communicating to fans the steps management is taking to reduce waste—using signage and market messaging—raises awareness. For instance, some venues are taking waste from dining halls and food concessions – much of which would normally be sent to landfills – and turning it into mulch for landscaping. Telling fans about these efforts publicizes the venue’s sustainability goals and leads to the next step in the process: using signage and messaging once again to convince fans to follow suit and take steps to help reduce waste while at the venue.

Considerable progress is being made, according to the Penn State team; however, as with all sustainability efforts, gaining fan buy- in is a process and must be viewed as a work in progress. There is no endpoint when it comes to sustainability.


Dealing with Water Consumption

Many parts of the U.S., especially the Midwest, have had record rainfall this year.  Some park and recreation administrators may believe that because of this, water conservation, and more importantly, water efficiency efforts are just not needed. *

This is not the case at all. What they should be looking at is the fact that aquifers – underground water supplies – are in serious decline here and in many parts of the world. In the United States, ground water is the source of drinking water for half of our population and nearly all those living in rural areas of the country. Further, “it provides billion gallons [of water] per day for [this country’s] agricultural needs,” reports the U.S. Department of the Interior.

It took thousands of years for these aquifers to fill. The amount of water being pumped out is unsustainable, and aquifers around the country are drying out.  So, what can park and recreation centers do about this? Again, realizing that many of these locations are older with older water-using fixtures, we could discuss the usual, looking for leaks and installing aerators in faucets to reduce water use. These are good steps, but a more worthy step to take, which can be performed in-house, is to conduct a water audit.

Park and recreation facilities are dynamic. Over time, fixtures and water-using devices break, are replaced and repaired. Administrators often don’t know how much water these fixtures are using, or whether repairs have improved or hindered water consumption.

The essence of a water audit is to find out. Take stock of all the water-using fixtures in the park and recreation center and determine which are new and functioning properly, which are old, using too much water by today’s standards, and which are malfunctioning or leaking.  Most importantly, determine which can be replaced with high-efficiency faucets, toilets, and shower-heads. “During an audit, it’s rare that you don’t find 15, 20, 30 things that can be replaced or repaired,” says Michelle Maddus, with the College Water Efficiency Group at the Alliance for Water Efficiency.** This becomes a double win, yielding savings in water consumption and financial savings for park and recreation facilities grappling with increasing water rates.

Avoiding the “Lighting” Rebound Effect

Many park and recreation administrators are already taking another step by replacing traditional incandescent light bulbs and fluorescent light bulbs, with energy-saving LEDs. While LEDs are more expensive than conventional light bulbs, they use just 10 percent of the energy of incandescent lights and less than half the energy consumption of incandescent. In addition, they last as many times longer than a typical incandescent light bulb, often providing about ten years of use before they must be replaced.

However, park and recreation administrators are advised not to leave these lights on more frequently just because they use so much less energy. This is referred to as the “rebound effect,” which is quite common and often first detected by facilities using what are called “sustainability dashboards.”

For instance, a commercial office building invested in LED lighting. In the common areas of the building, they turned on common area lights only at night but left most off during the day. With the LED lights installed, they were left on 24/7. After all, they were saving so much energy, why not. A few months later, the dashboard system reported they were using about as much energy after the LEDs were installed as they were before, defeating the whole purpose of the lighting investment.

The takeaway I hope to leave park and recreation administrators is that they do have options when it comes to operating in a more sustainability-focused manner. As we mentioned, it is a journey; all they need to do is take the first step. What often surprises me is how many things soon fall into place helping facilities become more sustainability-focused, more environmentally responsible, and finding it helps lower costs as well.

Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in Green cleaning and sustainability, and is on the Board of the Green Sports Alliance. He has also been inducted into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame (IGIHOF). Ashkin can be reached at

*Water conservation refers to short-term reductions in water consumption, for instance, during a drought. Water efficiency refers to long-term decreases in water consumption.

** This is a nonprofit organization of utilities, consultants, and higher education institutions.


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